InicioRapa Nui RegionRapa Nui People

Rapa Nui People

Isla Rapa Nui. Te Pito Te Henua

The Rapa Nui people live on Easter Island.

Rapa Nui is the original name of this island of volcanic origin and triangular shape, located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

The island, of only 150 km2, has three volcanoes located on each of its three corners.

Big sculptures of stone, crowned with red hats, that have their backs facing the ocean, are the most representative feature of this mysterious and complex culture.

3.000 kilometers away from the Chilean coast, in front of the port Caldera, these typical Moais speak about this ancestral people.

250 Ahu or ceremonial stone altars, 600 standing Moai and other many scattered over the island the island, many petroglifs carved in volcanic stones, and the music and dance remind us of Polynesia, Rapa Nui cultural background.

1.853 people live on the island, being 1.175 of them Rapa Nui, 678 Chilean and 36 mapuche, all residents in Hanga Roa.

Ceremonial Shrines

Moai Rapa Nui

Contrasting with the Polynesians, who carved their ancestors' images in wood, the Rapa-Nui sculpted their Moais in volcanic stone obtained from the Rano Raraku Volcano's quarry, where, until our days, seventy unfinished Moais remain as if they were sleeping.

The production's decline of these monumental sculptures is due to the internal crisis created by power struggles and food scarcity in the island.

The Moais are 4 meters hight, excepting Moai Paro which is 10 meters high and weighs 85 tons. Ahu Te Pito Kura, the ceremonial center, is the final expression of the megaliths used as symbols of political and religious power in the context of the crisis experienced by the Rapa Nui society.

Danza ceremonia Foto de Silvia Valenzuela

The moais, were directly sculpted in volcanic rock, using basalt stone-cutters.

Once finished, they were lifted, and carried to the volcano's foot, using ropes made out of vegetable fibers. After placing them in the upright position, the Rapa Nui carved the moais' eyes, noses, and elongated ears, while tattooing its back. By dragging them with ropes and wooden structures, or by pushing them with bascular movements - as if they were walking by themselves - they were transported to a given ceremonial shrine.

The long and hard task of moving one of these sculptures ended when the moai was placed on the ahu or shrine, with the ocean at its back. Here Ariki, the King, presided the ritual to invest the moai with a power capable of protecting the lineage and the island.

Only after this ceremony, the moai received its eyes made from white coral and obsidian, and its hat, made from red stone, similar to the red tinted coif or turban that the Arikis used as a simbol of their divinity.

Danza ceremonia Foto de Silvia Valenzuela

The Ahu are stone platforms, inspired by the marae, an old Polynesian prototype. The Rapa Nui added to this basic pattern other constructions, creating a different ceremonial monument, the Ahu. They integrated stone images, the Moai; adding an inclined frontal plane, called Tahya, paved with round stones, the Poro, with wide lateral extensions, and a crematory.

1000 years, the Rapa Nui builders, the Tangata Maori Anga Ahu, erected almost three hundred Ahu, most of them located on the coastal line.

The chosen place for building an Ahu was sacralized by means of a ceremonial that included a cover of red soil as a base. This color, in Polynesia, symbolized the sacred, the war, the crops, fertility and human sacrifices.

Moai Kava Kava

According to William Mulloy (American archaeologist), the ahu evolved gradually, experiencing no major changes caused by external influence. This theory contradicts another Rapa Nui tradition that speaks about a second migratory wave that brought the Hanau Epe, a strong people, that subjugated the original community brought by Hotu Matua, known as Hanay Momkor, or thin race.

Tongariki is the biggest ahu of all. This ahu is located in the south coast and had a forty-five meters long platform, expandable up to one hundred and sixty meters, with lateral extensions, that hosted about 15 moai with red stone hats.

Tahai: Its first period of construction is in the year 700 A.C. This ahu already presents several innovations, what suggests a relatively long time of local adaptation and evolution. Ariki Tuu Ko Ihu is Hotu Matua's companion who is thought as the creator of the first wooden Moai.

The Ariki would have seen two spirits that inspired him to create the Kava Kava Moai (of prominent ribs). Then, a female spirit appeared before him, and from this image he created the Pa'a Pa'a Moai.


Culto a Manutara, el hombre pájaro

Every year, representatives of different lineage competed to obtain the first egg of the seagull known as Manutara, that nested on a small island, Motu Nui, located in front of Orongo.

Whoever brought the egg, unbroken and after a tough fight, was entitled as Tangata Manu. This meant that the winner was the reincarnation of the very Make Make god.

During the year, the Tangata Manu and his lineage enjoyed economical, political and religious privileges, giving place to a despotic and cruel rule exercised over those defeated who, during the following year, would try to get their revenge.

Cannibalism propagated in this period. Many petroglifs evoke the bird man, with a human body and a bird head, holding an egg in his hands.

Aringa ora o koro is the celebration of the indigenous new year. This is a time for celebrating the annual cycle of life. Fertility and productivity are celebrated. In Rapa Nui it takes place during the winter solstice.


Cabeza de Make Make, tallada en madera

Contemporary Rapa Nui keep their rites, ceremonies and ancestral beliefs.

Some of their practices vary depending on this people's different stages since their prehistory.

In what is known as the expansive stage, an unusual religious fervor toward the ancestors took place: three hundred ceremonial altars and almost six hundreds moai were built. Priests were endowed with special power. Political crisis and starvation followed in what is known as the decline phase. The Rapa Nui were now praying for food. Such is the origin of the fertility cult of the god Make Make.

However, old concepts as Mana and Tapu prevailed. Mana is the supernatural power or magic.

It is in hands of the spirits and of some initiated.

This magic can be transmitted to any object, and so can be to those people living close to powerful men.

Rapa Nui Origins

Tallando en madera

The origins of the Rapa Nui people are not entirely clear and many theories have been built around them.

For the original people of Rapa Nui, their mythology and oral traditions explain their history.

These traditions suggest that King Hotu Matu'a and 100 people coming from nearby Polynesian islands were the first settlers of Rapa Nui.

According to the myth, the legendary hero laid out the social organization, the system of kinship and descent, along with the building patterns of monuments and houses. The Rapa Nui culture is linked to the Polynesian culture, but, in isolation, this people developed unique systems of beliefs and stone constructions as found nowhere in the world.

The social basic unit is the hua´ai, that is, the extense family, composed at least of three generations, which patrilineal descent.

Its language is the Vaná a Rapa Nui, and its ceremonial writing, the Rongo Rongo, belongs to the Polynesian family.